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Lee Bollinger Zenawi

Veni, Vidi, Orator, Fugio!

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Reinventing Zenawi

In 47 B.C., the Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar sent his senators news of his military victory in a simple declaration: “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) “Emperor” Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief, would have loved to send the same message to his “senators” in Addis Ababa following his speech at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum (WLF) on September 22, 2010. But he will have to settle for something less: “Veni, Vidi, Orator, Fugio!” (I came, I saw, I spoke (for 20 minutes). I got the hell (out of Dodge) outta there!”)

In less than 60 New York minutes, Meles Zenawi was outta there. The whole kit and caboodle — introduction, speech, Q&As, pleasantries — took less than an hour, according to The Spectator, the campus online paper. No doubt, that was not the script Joe “The Globalizer” Stiglitz and his crew at the WLF had written when they invited Zenawi to deliver the “keynote address”. Their plan was to give Zenawi a forum to clean up his image on the heels of a 99.6 election victory in May 2010, and deflect attention from the impending condemnatory report of the European Union Election Monitoring Team due any day now. Simply stated, the affair was part of a Stiglitzian scheme to reinvent Zenawi for Americans right on Columbia’s stage and showcase him as a great African leader.

Of Mice and Men

But as the old saying goes, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go arwy”, and at the WLF, they did for Zenawi. His appearance drew condemnation from all quarters. Two prominent Ethiopian husband and wife journalists, Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega[1], wrote a heart-wrenching letter from Ethiopia to plead with University President Lee Bollinger: “While we acknowledge [Zenawi’s] right to express his views, it is an affront to his government’s numerous victims of repression to grant him the privilege to do so on the notable premises of Columbia.” They recounted their “incarceration under deplorable circumstances”, ultimate acquittal in the courts, and how Serkalem gave birth to a “premature” baby because of her “physical and psychological privation in one of Africa’s worst prisons.” They offered testimony in their letter on the “incomprehensible vindictiveness” of Zenawi’s regime in denying them “an incubator” for their baby ordered by the doctors.

World-renowned economist Prof. Jagdish Baghwati of Columbia University, without mentioning Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs by name, condemned “unacademic professors” and academic “entrepreneurs” who are given “unaccountable power and funds” to exploit the University and “advance their own agendas”. He said the unnamed “entrepreneurs” seek to “ingratiate” themselves “with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote, etc.”

Prof. William Easterly of New York University, a world-renowned development economist, wrote on his blog: “I am happy to give the opposition a platform in this blog, without necessarily endorsing any one viewpoint, individual, or movement.” He put the question to his readers: “Should President Bollinger issue the “Ahmadinejad” disclaimer requested by the critics?”, in reference to the drubbing Bollinger gave Ahmadinejad in 2007 in his prefatory remarks.

Prof. Ted Vestal, the well-known and respected scholar on Ethiopia, wrote President Bollinger with an offer of advice and in apparent response to Prof. Easterly’s question: “The only way you can redeem the damaged reputation of the World Leaders Forum is by publicly making known the shortcomings of Prime Minister Meles and his government in your introductory remarks–a refutation similar to what you did in introducing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran in 2007.”

The Washington Examiner wondered: “It’s all well and good that [Zenawi] he is an ally of the United States, but why should Columbia honor him with a speaking engagement?”

In an editorial, The Spectator wrote: “Meles Zenawi is not a household name, but he is a despot. His government has carried out numerous extrajudicial killings, imprisoned political dissidents, and brutally suppressed protests by activists at Addis Ababa University…. The World Leaders Forum is supposed to be a hallmark of a global university. If we are truly globally minded, we must also be globally conscious. Students and administrators alike should care about Ethiopia.”

A day before the speech, Columbia announced without explanation that Zenawi will not speak at the stately domed Low Library, where heads of states usually speak, and directed those interested to show up at the Roone Arledge Auditorium, an all-purpose campus facility. A few dozen students and some faculty showed up. But President Bollinger was nowhere to be seen at the event. His Provost, Claude Steele, showed up and promptly reminded Zenawi that “Columbia doesn’t endorse the leaders it invites to the World Leaders Forum.” Busloads of Ethiopians trekked to Columbia from neighboring states to protest Zenawi’s appearance. They were orderly and peaceful, and expressed their opposition passionately. Their disciplined exercise of their democratic right to protest was an object lesson to all.

I was decidedly in the minority among Ethiopians in the Diaspora in vigorously defending Zenawi’s “right” to speak at Columbia or any other public venue in America, much to the chagrin of those who disapproved of his appearance. I argued: “As a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ I underscore the words ‘everyone’ and ‘regardless of frontiers.'” I also expressed my hope that the speaking opportunity would be a teachable moment for Zenawi: “He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot.” Regardless, I respect the views of those who disagreed with me.

Talking Big, Saying Nothing

The event was supposed to kick off a “conversation to examine Africa’s place in the world” and facilitate discussion on “the future of African agriculture, the explosion of Asian investment on the continent, the evolving contours of global aid to Africa, and the impact of the financial crisis on the region.” On Ethiopia, Zenawi was expected to speak about “progresses (sic) in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.” But the audience did not see an African knight in shining armor thrusting a lance at poverty, injustice and global inequality. They saw a sanctimonious emperor with new clothes.

Zenawi talked for a mere 20 minutes. He must have been tongue-tied. He usually harangues his parliament for hours, often berating and belittling the timid rubber-stampers.

As a devotee of the old “Globalizer” Stiglitz, Zenawi reminded the audience that “the continent must keep producing and consuming goods to keep the engines of globalization running.” He explained the “main challenge in Ethiopia is poverty. Most of you who have heard of Ethiopia will have heard of it in terms of poverty … It is my hunch that overcoming poverty and ensuring full security could contribute to the happiness of Ethiopians.” But when asked what he thought of the concept of “gross national happiness,” Zenawi said he had not really studied it. That’s quite understandable for someone who has been busy inflicting “gross unhappiness” on 80 million Ethiopians for the past two decades. Zenawi complained that “people have given up on Africa’s contribution to the world economy and that Africans have the chance to generate growth themselves. The continent must continue to produce and consume goods.”

Based on The Spectator report, the speech seemed desultory and meandering, cumulatively amounting to an implicit repudiation of the International Monetary Fund’s “structural adjustment programs” (market oriented policies as preconditions for loans). It does not appear that there was much discussion of globalization as advertised, and as we have heard it preached according to the Gospel of St. Stiglitz of Columbia (a/k/a Globalization and Its Discontents and Making Globalization Work.)

Zenawi was asked if he was being fairly characterized as a “dictator”. He evaded the question and sought credit for removing the junta dictatorship: “I have contributed my fair share to fighting the systems in Ethiopia that were unmistakably oppressive”. He failed to mention that after fighting oppression, he had become the apotheosis of oppression on the African continent today.

Zenawi tried to deflect attention from his own criminality by focusing on the criminality of the former military junta. He said during the “period of Red Terror [1977-78] people were killed without any recourse to the courts. That time of criminality and oppression is dead, is finished, and is not coming back.” Not true! That criminality never left; it is alive and well. The old criminality wore uniforms and boots; the new criminality wears tailored suits and alligator shoes. That’s the only difference. The courts today are circuses of injustice. Citizens get “legally” lynched, jailed and abused “with recourse to the courts.”

For the first time, Zenawi explained the methodology he used to calculate his 99.6 election victory in May 2010. (I had mistakenly believed it was a magic formula. Mea culpa!) It is actually a mathematical system hereafter to be known as the “Zenawian Theorem.” He said he was able to win 99.6 percent of all seats in parliament by winning just a little over 50 percent of the vote for each seat. Thus, applying the “Zenawian equation”: 50 percent plus 0.1 equals 99.6 percent. Apparently, he uses the same theorem to derive economic growth rates of 10.1, 11.9 and 14.9 percent for Ethiopia.

Zenawi was reassuring about his future plans: “In case you are wondering whether I will remain in power until kingdom come, I can assure you that this will be my last term in power.” Really? He has been saying that for the past five years straight. Anyway, for the past twenty years “Emperor” Zenawi has been sitting on the throne in his “kingdom” exercising his royal prerogative over his wretched subjects. Could he be envisioning his “kingdom” (“Reich”) lasting for a thousand years?

Asked about alleged crimes against humanity committed by his government, he responded, “I can understand how people have had an inadequate chance to consider the facts.” He failed to suggest where they may be able to find the facts. Might we suggest the 2010 human reports on Ethiopia issued by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists and the U.S. State Department?

Zenawi said he welcomes engagement and is glad to see students caring enough to learn about Ethiopia. He says that Ethiopia is making progress and invited everyone to come see for themselves. He did not say if he will cover the cost of their flights there.

Rather Disappointed

It was rather disappointing. In general, it does not appear that Zenawi was genuinely looking for an intellectual outlet for his ideas or a forum to respond to his critics. He was there to save face given the intense controversy surrounding his appearance. I was hoping to see Zenawi engaging those Columbia eggheads on issues of human rights and development and democratic theory and practice. He could have taught those armchair pundits and airhead academics a thing or two about the “end of poverty”, “globalization and its discontents”, the decay and imminent collapse of liberal democracy, the irrelevance of human rights and the vices of democracy and virtues of dictatorship. He could have also taken on his critics and disproven the things they have said and written about him. He could have made the opportunity a teachable moment for us all. But he missed the opportunity.

On the other hand, I believe Stiglitz has ill-served his academic community. He advertised that Zenawi would be delivering the “keynote address” to launch a “conversation” on “globalization and its impact on Africa.” Obviously, a 20-minute speech makes a travesty of such an important subject. Surely, Stiglitz as an academic “entrepreneur” is familiar with the concept of “truth in advertising”. In the future, he would be well-advised to apply that principle in the academic marketplace, and avoid intentionally misleading his community by deceptive advertising of his intellectual “product” lines.

It is said that there are some people who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It seems Zenawi is one of them. He had the World Leaders Forum to engage and spar with the best and the brightest America has to offer. He let the opportunity slip. The only thing left for him to do now is send an urgent message back to his doodling “senators” in Addis Ababa: “Veni! Vidi! Orator, Fugio!”